COLUMBIA - It started, like so many things do, around the kitchen table.
Driven by lobbyist Hobart Trotter, a few fellow Statehouse insiders, lobbyists and lawmakers among them, began to rekindle their passion for music at the Columbia native's home starting three years ago. When the General Assembly is in session, the days are long and the nights longer, especially for those who leave families and lives elsewhere.
Those who joined the group didn't want to stop, and Trotter, who grew up in a musical family, found his interest in playing guitar and singing fully rekindled after leaving it behind for many years. Eventually, the evening sessions began to trickle out to restaurants and bars around town, and Trotter's blend of bluegrass, country and folk he calls "Americana" has started to become more of a mainstay around Columbia.
It's also helped build relationships, the all-important currency in politics.
Beyond the political, one hope is that it will revive a tradition of the state's heavy hitters letting loose and playing music that the capital city hasn't seen much of in recent years.
"We've been able to pull together a cross-party contingent to sit around and put everything else aside and just play music," said Trotter, a 61-year-old lobbyist for a range of clients on state contract-related issues for the law firm Riley, Pope & Laney. "I don't think we've ever talked about issues. That's not why we're there."
His newly budding music career has also brought he and his wife to Charleston, where one of their three daughters live.
In Columbia, the good cheer and connections music brings spill over to the Statehouse's cavernous lobby, where, fittingly, the state's lobbyists can be found when the General Assembly meets.
Those well-dressed lobby denizens write and push legislation, as well as educate and advocate for clients on seemingly every conceivable issue.
Where the public, who has come to largely disdain all things political, sees an insiders' game, those who play it say that relationships and trust are everything. Music can serve as a bridge.
"Music is a pretty frustrating thing," Trotter said of the connection you can gain from performing with and in front of others. "You kind of throw your soul out there."
Former minority leader Rep. James Smith of Columbia said building relationships with the other side is especially important as a Democrat these days; the party is outflanked by Republicans nearly two-to-one in the House.
"Music does that. It helps us communicate on other issues later," said Smith, a bass player and one of the Statehouse's most accomplished musicians. As a bassist with The Root Doctors in the 1980s, he practiced with Hootie & the Blowfish at a time when Columbia's music scene was strong at the University of South Carolina.
"We're going to listen to each other more. When you have a relationship with members, it's less easy to discount their concerns based on a purely partisan basis. (Music is) not going to be the elixir for the world, but it helps build some understanding."
For Trotter, it's a chance to get back to what he loves. The Columbia native grew up playing music and singing, learning harmony with his family. He keeps demo CDs in his car, and has been pleased with the progress. His band, Barefoot n' Reckless, opened for Sister Hazel at a charity event in April, and Trotter receives calls from places around town that want to book them.
The band also sees a regular group of legislators and other lobbyists take the stage, Republican Reps. Phyllis Henderson and Phil Owens among them.
Henderson, from the Greenville area, served her first term in the Statehouse in 2011. She said she has been excited at the chance to sing with Trotter and others. Above all, it's a chance to showcase talent and passion - and get away from politics while she's in the capital.
Building relationships is seen as a dirty business, an unfair characterization, she and others said. "I just feel like the minute we get elected, people think we're crooked," she said.
Lobbyists are primarily educators, she said. As thousands of bills make their way through the process, it's often the lobbyist who is laser-focused on a handful of issues and knows the answers to legislators' questions.
"It's important to get to know all these people because when there's something that comes up, I know who I can talk to," Henderson said.
When the bell rings and the chambers empties during the legislative session, the day is hardly over for most. Legislators are bound by a "no cup of coffee" rule, meaning lobbyists can't buy individual lawmakers anything of value unless a whole group of legislators is invited out, which happens almost every night of the legislative session. Different groups host receptions around town, where drinks and food are usually free for invited legislators.
Owens, who is retiring and often plays guitar with Trotter and others, said the off-hours community building is a key part of the process, whether there's music involved or not.
And relationships with lobbyists are part of that.
"They are a reliable source of information. We, as legislators, don't have time to go dig all that up," Owens said. "If you trust a lobbyist, you will ask them for the information you need."
Music and politics don't always mix. Lobbyist and musician Michael Covington, or "Covey," got a taste of some unwanted publicity in 2005. He recorded a CD at his home full of songs poking fun at the legislative session. Lobbyists generally get together after the session ends for a party, and Covington handed out copies of satirical recordings about the session.
Then at the S.C. Department of Transportation, Covington got the full dose of a PR nightmare when the press got hold of the CD, which included a song about then-Gov. Mark Sanford. It was called the "Spelling Song" and it used each letter of Sanford's name to spell out something less than flattering; "O" was for out-of-state contributions.
Covington said he learned his lesson.
"I did one more, and the name of the song was 'I Love Everybody,' " said Covington, one of the constant musicians who plays guitar and sings with Trotter. Covington, 59, said he's a lifelong musician, and, like others, it still drives him.
"I'd like to figure out how to sell a song," he said. "That's what I would love to do. I have no delusions about being a star, that's for younger men I believe, unless you're Willie Nelson."
For Trotter, bringing back the Statehouse tradition of performance among the insiders, which dates back to the 1970s through 1990s, is just part of his reason for going forward. He's unilaterally ambitious, and loves both of his jobs.
Former Rep. Rudolph Mitchell, who began serving in the early 1960s, started an end of session sing-along in the Statehouse lobby when legislators would gather in public and poke fun at themselves, said his daughter, former Rep. Molly Spearman, now a candidate for superintendent of education and a musician herself.
But back then and until the late 1990s, there was another tradition: the Capital Cafe. It was a place where politicians, lobbyists, and judges would cram into diner booths and tables, sometimes spilling out onto the sidewalk to listen.
Spearman's father, who is now in his 80s, was one of the main acts, and the place was always jammed to hear him.
"Music is the one thing that can kind of brings everybody together," Spearman said.
Columbia has seen a trendier rejuvenation from its greasy spoon past. On Main Street, less then a block from the Statehouse, the upscale bar Bourbon stands where Capital Cafe used to be. Giant windows at another trendy spot called The Oak Table across the street look out onto the Statehouse dome.
Trotter is plotting ahead, hoping to bring what could become a Capital Cafe second act, perhaps out of some of Columbia's newest spots. While it isn't a sing-a-long in the Statehouse lobby, music has its own way of getting beneath the skin and inducing a different perspective.
"It doesn't matter whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, it's all the same song," Trotter said. "I can't think of another thing that would be that effective."
Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.
Trotter, circa 1973, approximately age 22.×
Michael Covington plays drums with his middle school band, The Reactions.×
A photo of a painting by artist Bill Stroud of the old Capital Cafe, a Columbia mainstay from about the 1970s through 1990s.×
Michael Covington (left) and Hobart Trotter perform together recently at Tombo Grille in Columbia.×